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Last refuge: World's largest collection of Will James' artwork at risk without preservation

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Last refuge: World's largest collection of Will James' artwork at risk without preservation

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series exploring the origin and complicated future of the Will James Collection at the Yellowstone Art Museum. The first part was published Sunday.

In the early 1900s, Joseph Ernest Dufault emigrated as a teenager from French-speaking Canada to the United States and reinvented himself as the cowboy artist Will James. Drawn to the western lifestyle, James would manufacture his own story, one that is still playing out in Billings, his last real home.

Historic photo of Will James

Will James at his Rocking R Ranch.

James began his wild western life in Nevada where he was arrested for cattle rustling in 1914. After his release from jail, he began breaking wild horses for a ranch in the Washoe Valley, where he met his future wife, Alice Conradt, of Reno. She was 15, he was 27, and they married the following year. James built them a cabin in Washoe Valley, where they lived for several years and where James began his writing career.

His third book "Smoky the Cowhorse" was a hit and helped pay for a ranch in Montana. There, he would meet the Snook family, who would become intimately connected with the cowboy artist to the end of his life.  

In 1942, at age 50, Will James died in California after years of heavy drinking. He left many of his possessions in Billings with Earl and Eleanora Snook and their only child, Virginia.

Virginia Snook

Virginia Snook is pictured in 1998, holding a copy of Ernest Hemingway's "In Our Time," given to Earl Snook by Hemingway while he was a patient at St. Vincent Hospital recovering from injuries suffered in a car wreck in 1930.

Virginia carried on her family's legacy of art collection and philanthropy.  She was steward of the family’s collection, which she donated to the Yellowstone Art Museum in two gifts, one in 1993 and the remainder upon her death in 2000.

Over time, Will James items have increased in value, and collector Thomas Minckler believes the YAM’s collection is its most valuable possession.

“It’s the most complete collection of its kind, with documents, letters, written material, and all the art, plus a majority of the oils. The oils are majorly valuable,” said Minckler, who estimates when the YAM received the collection, the oil paintings were worth $20,000 to $50,000 each.

Recently, a Will James original oil painting sold for "well above $300,000," Minckler said.

Susan Barnett, YAM’s curator, said the museum is still actively growing its Will James collection, which accounts for 10% of the museum’s permanent collection of artwork for display and nearly 85% of the materials and objects in its possession. Most recently Barnett picked up a collection of first edition books, gifted to the museum in October from a donor in Bozeman.

Preserving a legacy

Donna Forbes, the executive director at the time the Snook collection came to the YAM, maintains that a museum’s responsibility is in not just exhibiting but also preserving works. “Whatever you take in as your collection is your responsibility because you are saving it for the future,” said Forbes, who still resides in Billings and recently celebrated her 90th birthday.

Snook Art Company on North 29th

The original location of the Snook Art Co. on North 29th is seen in this file photo from the Western Heritage Center. 

Yet, the enormous collection came to the YAM without a financial endowment to care for the items. And, many of James’ works were framed with acidic materials by the Snook Art Co. at a time when archival preservation wasn’t practiced.

“It’s one of many competing priorities,” said Barnett. “We are not just a collector’s institution and we do this with a small staff and limited resources.”

The museum is seeking grants and donations, Barnett said, “to ensure that our entire collection is properly housed, photographed, and thoroughly cataloged,” an ongoing project that includes the works donated by Virginia Snook.

“The highest priority for the Virginia Snook Collection is to re-mat all of the framed work to meet current conservation standards,” Barnett said. Other works that came to the museum from the Snooks — including a collection of works by Montana painter and educator Isabelle Johnson, one of Virginia’s longtime friends — are also under acid mats.

Materials, however, are housed in markedly improved conditions in the YAM’s Visible Vault. They’re in acid-free folders, buffered, interleaved with cotton paper in files or drawers. Even the framed works with acidic mats have a slower rate of deterioration because they’re housed in climate-controlled conditions, Barnett said. The James collection is also specially marked “disaster,” signaling they should be saved first in an emergency.

Will James preservation

Yellowstone Art Museum registrar Lisa Ranallo shows how she is rematting illustrations by artist Will James in the museum's Visible Vault in June.

A life's accumulations

Contrast the collection's current care with the condition it was found in when it was in Virginia’s possession.

“It was quite a process,” recalled Gordon McConnell, senior curator at YAM at the time, of obtaining the collection from the Snook home. He described the stacks of newspapers and magazines among paperwork, documents, artwork, and valuable materials. “Things were piled together. There was art in and among the newspapers.”

Will James self portrait

A self-portrait painted by Will James, circa 1920

Marvin Brown, who helped clean out the Snook home, recalled magazines stacked knee-high on the floor. “Someone picked up a magazine and started thumbing through it,” Brown said in a previous interview with The Gazette. “There was a drawing in it by Will James. Every single one of those magazines had a Will James picture inside to keep it flat.”

The museum currently has 10 oil-on-canvas paintings on display in a new exhibit celebrating Will James, as well as letters and James’ chaps and saddle. Works were chosen for display in part because the museum lacks funds to purchase new frames, Barnett said. But, removing them from acid mats stops the degradation.

Without major project funding, Barnett estimates the museum would be able to reframe about 50 works per year. The YAM currently has 3,543 works of art in its permanent collection; of that, 371 are attributed to James, according to Barnett. “It is a priority, it just takes some time to get there.”

Other items that need attention include James’ drawings, many created on illustration boards and reproduced for his novels.

“A lot of illustrators worked with totally crappy material,” said Barnett, even using whiteout, which over the years stays white as the paper fades. Masking and self-adhesive tape, which deteriorates and can turn acidic over time, were often left on the backsides of drawings, also leaves behind marks on the materials.

Kevin Kooistra, executive director of Western Heritage Center, said they receive plenty of items framed with acidic materials, or taped down with masking tape — though it’s not as common after 1970.

“Even the most professional people who were matting into the '60s were not understanding what the long-term preservation would be,” said Kooistra.

A growing YAM

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At the same time the Snook collection was being pursued, a massive expansion and fundraising project was underway at the museum – then called the Yellowstone Art Center. Forbes, the executive director at the time, and the museum staff saw the need to expand the museum and build a facility that could properly protect their collections.

In 1998, after a 10-year, $6.2 million-dollar capital campaign to renovate and expand the facility, the name was officially changed to the Yellowstone Art Museum.

Yellowstone Art Museum, 1993

This 1993 photo shows Donna Forbes, former executive director of the Yellowstone Art Museum, with a model of the expansion project that led to the museum's transition from the Yellowstone Art Center. The project was completed in 1998, accompanied by the name change.

The first gifts of art from the Snook estate came to the YAM five years prior. Forbes recalls the second floor of the old jail building – where YAM staff offices are now located — held the art until the Visible Vault was built.

“It was just the beginning of everything,” Forbes said. “We had good locks on it, and no one knew that all that art was in there, that the Snook art was there. We never had anything stolen that I ever knew, and it’s amazing because it was just ripe for the picking in a lot of ways. We didn’t have the staff or the money. It was an old jail but it wasn’t the most secure place in the world.”

Virginia Snook passed away in 2000 at age 89. Upon her death, the remaining collection was obtained by the YAM, where the Earl E. Snook Family Gallery was established to showcase the collection.

That gallery, located on the first floor of the old jail, is not used for the Snook collection anymore. The gallery furthest east on the main floor of the expanded museum is now being used for a display of some of the James collection.

Will James Society

The museum has had a varying display of James’ works, and over the years that display has shrunk – much to the dismay of Will James lovers. The Will James Society, founded in 1992 to promote his legacy, literature, and art, was a regular contributor to the museum when his works were more prominently displayed.

Sharon DeCarlo, current president of the Will James Society, estimates they donated $1,700 a year, but stopped several years ago when the museum pulled back the public display of James works.

“Just like every association, people change out and they all have a little bit different agenda and passion, and I think Will James got put on the back burner,” DeCarlo said.

Recently, the museum re-dedicated the eastern gallery to James, where his paintings, drawings, show saddle, letters, and more from the permanent collection are on display. Twenty-three pieces were selected to be reframed for the reinstallation, which have been re-matted with archival materials.

Barnett, YAM's curator, said she included the Will James Society in selecting works for display.

Will James drawing

Will James is seen writing in this undated photo from the Western Heritage Center. 

“I thought it would be worth asking them what they really wanted to see,” she said. The current exhibit is an intersection of what the society expressed interest in, what had an existing frame, and what work hadn’t been on display in a while.

The museum is back in the good graces of the Will James Society, DeCarlo said. The society contributed $1,000 to help with costs of archival framing for the most recent exhibit, but to preserve and archive the thousands of materials housed in the YAM’s vault will take many more supporters.

“We would love to have funding for major conservation, but right now we are just taking it a step at a time as we can,” said Barnett.

That is something Minckler, a collector of James' work who donated a rare find of his galley proofs (the working copies of printed manuscripts from the publisher) to the museum, feels is necessary. “It would take a concerted effort by people in Billings. Unless you come up with a lot of money to fund action on the collection, nothing is going to happen.”

A wealth of information

Every object in the YAM’s possession has a basic record, said Barnett. Varying degrees of photography and description accompany the item in an online database that is available at the Visible Vault, where two computers are available for public use.

It’s a clunky system, but contains records of all of the objects in the YAM’s collection. Barnett said the museum is in the process of planning for how to update the records, improve online access, and how to staff such a project.

“To properly digitize the archives, we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars,” said Barnett, who hopes to improve the details of the catalog with an inventory of the collection with the support of a professional archivist.

The collection is a biographer’s dream, the most complete collection of James’ life, from letters in his own hand, down to the bank statements and daily ephemera.

James and the cabin

This historic photo is the only solid evidence tying Will James to the Snook cabin, which is in the background. As researcher Karen Ferguson noted after going through James' belongings for the Yellowstone Art Museum, all of the local history is in folks' brains, not in documents.

“Does anybody really understand what a wealth of information that is there?” asked Danielle Schmidt, who grew up around the Snook family. “There are so many gaps and inconsistencies, and I guarantee you what is in that vault answers so many questions.”

After Virginia’s death, Schmidt assisted museum staff at the Snook home. “We had to go through everything,” she said. “I found a letter from Alice to Will James saying an explanation of why she had to leave.”

Schmidt believes the items in the YAM’s vault contain a more complete picture of Will James’ life, one that is uniquely tied to Billings.

“Even though he was the range rider and the Hollywood person, to me, as lonely as he was, this was the most of a home that he ever would experience. He chose Billings as a last refuge in a lot of ways, not only the Rocking R, but living with the Snooks.”

Photos: Memories of Will James

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